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The vessel final

The Vessel: God Wears a Pink Dress

She sat in the emergency waiting room, hoping that the doctor would come with some good news. Her husband just suffered a massive stroke. And I stood outside the waiting room door, trying to think of the perfect thing to say to this wife in the midst of her pain.

I was the hospital chaplain that evening. In my brief time as a chaplain, I learned that nothing can prepare you for such moments. What’s the right thing to say during such an unexpected tragedy? Sometimes there’s nothing you can say. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is listen.

When I opened the door, I was greeted by the woman and her teenage daughter. After building some rapport with them, I asked how they were doing. The woman’s response was odd, but it also amazed me. She told me a story about a time she was at a local amusement park.

She was walking through a haunted house when a toddler started screaming in fear of the darkness. The child’s mother looked around for a way out, but she couldn’t find an exit. She started to move back towards the entrance, but the park employee managing the house stopped her. “Ma’am,” the employee began. “You can’t go back. The only way out is through.”

The only way out is through.

The woman whose husband just had a stroke repeated that phrase. She told me that everyone has options during times of tragedy. We can seek to blame someone else. We can hide in the dark corners of the “haunted house.” We can numb the pain with drugs or alcohol. But she told me that she only had one option in the face of her tragedy: the only way out is through.

That’s good wisdom and it’s reflected in the move The Vessel, starring Martin Sheen, who plays a priest named Father Douglas. To be released in theaters later this year, The Vessel is about a tragedy that strikes a small coastal town in South America. A tsunami sends an enormous wave that engulfs the town’s school, tragically killing all the town’s children.

The Vessel is a story about the different ways this community moves through the darkness of their tragedy. It begins with a classic example of scapegoating. The women manage their pain by creating a prohibition that none of the women are allowed to wear color; they must wear black and they must refuse to have children. The main character, a young man named Leo, explains the situation like this,

They all agreed that the first woman to wear color again is the worst mother in town. Well, my mother wears pink.

Pink is a sign of hope in the darkness of tragedy. It’s a sign that they can move through their tragedy, but the women largely ignore Leo’s mother. Since the wave killed the children, she no longer talked and she isolated herself from the other women. It’s Leo’s new girlfriend, Sorayah, who receives the wrath of the crowd. After finding love with Leo, she decides to wear a bright blue dress. The women and men of the town manage their pain by uniting against her, attacking her at night with torches. Fortunately, Leo comes to her rescue.

The people were stuck in their pain. They were victims without a path toward healing. So they inflicted their pain on a scapegoat. And soon, they would blame God. A woman cries out to Father Douglas,

If a man murders a child, we sentence him to death. But when God kills 46 children we are told to praise him. Sometimes it does feel like God has abandoned this place. If we only had a sign. Just the tiniest glimpse that He still cares…

Where is God in such tragedies? Did God cause the tsunami? Does God cause strokes? Where is God in the darkness? Theologians call these kinds of questions the problem of theodicy – if God is all powerful and good, then why do bad things happen?

The Vessel’s answer to that question is partly found in a vessel. Leo creates a boat from the wood that remains from the school. Father Douglas thinks the vessel could be a sign of hope for the community, but after Leo saved Soraya from the crowd, the crowd marched to the boat and set it ablaze. Just then, Father Douglas ran to the boat, attempted to save it, but he was too late. He reprimanded the crowd. The people then witnessed their destruction of the harmless vessel that could have given them so much hope. They repented of the violent destruction that they caused.

God is like that vessel, but God is also like Leo’s silent mother who wears pink. Why is God silent? Why doesn’t God answer our questions? Maybe God’s answers wouldn’t be helpful. Maybe the most helpful thing God can do is show up through a mother who doesn’t talk, but who listens. Maybe God is like a mother who wears a pink dress – pointing us to a more colorful world.

Eventually, the people do move through their pain together, not by uniting against a woman who wears pink or blue, or against a vessel. Rather, they move through their pain by uniting for a common purpose. Their new form of unity includes all the people of the town.

The Vessel symbolizes hope in the darkness. The boat holds us together in community, not united in scapegoating, but united in reconciliation. That’s where we find God in the midst of our darkness. We also find God in one who is like a mother wearing a pink dress in the midst of dark times, and moves with us through the darkness of tragedy into a more colorful world of hope.

For more on The Vessel, read Jason Jones’s article A Resurrection Movie: The Vessel. Jason is the president of Movies to Movement, a nonprofit that seeks to promote “a culture of life, love and beauty through the power of film.”

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“Spotlight” on Children

Spotlight has deservedly won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s a movie that Maria Montessori, the twentieth century’s most ardent defender of children’s rights, would have praised for its frank acknowledgment that children suffer silently while adults fight among themselves. Even when adults claim to be going to battle on behalf of children, the truth is less flattering and more damaging to children than we imagine.

The Urge to Scapegoat

Spotlight also wins praise from the Raven Foundation because of its extraordinary insights into the phenomenon of scapegoating. The movie treats us to an astonishing portrayal of the small Spotlight research team at the Boston Globe as good people in pursuit of the truth. Indeed, they are easy to admire. Led by a new editor in chief, the team courageously takes on the powerful and politically influential Catholic Church hierarchy. It’s something no one in very Catholic Boston has dared to do. But the truly astounding accomplishment of this movie is that it resists the pull to scapegoat the Catholic Church and so does not settle for easy answers.

The question that haunts the movie and motivates the reporters is why has something so pervasive gone on for so long without anyone finding out? At first it seems that the blame may fall squarely on one or two bad actors, and Cardinal Law certainly rises to the challenge of convincingly filling that role. Choosing instead to protect the offenders, Cardinal Law approved the shuttling of priests between parishes and a program of silencing parent protests. It appears as if Cardinal Law is guilty of scapegoating children in his zeal to protect the church’s reputation.

Of Heroes and Villains

When a villain is so obvious, crusaders for truth can be forgiven for believing that justice will be served when the villain is exposed and held accountable. This movie, however, does not fall into that trap. Even as it goes after the powerful villains, it uncovers guilt and sin nearly everywhere it looks. In a wrenching revelation, the parents of the victims are implicated in the protection of the abusive priests. As survivors and parents explain, to them the priests were like gods and so their attention was courted and welcomed. When it turned abusive, parents were so bewildered and ashamed that they retreated into stunned incredulity.

Even as all this comes to light, however, the Spotlight team still sees their mission as a black and white battle between the forces of good (themselves) and the evil but powerful Church hierarchy. In this scenario, the parents were as much victims of the big bad Church as the children. And we, the audience, know the outcome and eagerly anticipate the spectacle of this tiny team of Davids bringing down Cardinal “Goliath” Law by slinging words with lethal aim.

But this wise and wonderful movie deprives us of our satisfaction as our heroes come to realize their own complicity in the cover-up. They have kept asking how this abuse could have gone on unnoticed for so long, convinced, of course, that had they known earlier they would have blown the whistle earlier. The answer they uncover is the uncomfortable truth that they did know and they did nothing. Their own paper published an article many years earlier on the abuse scandal with information sufficient to cause scandal and demand accountability, but it buried the story on the back pages and no one ever followed up.

I believe that the most heroic thing the Spotlight team did was to follow their investigation beyond the truth they wanted to find. The discovery that Cardinal Law’s guilt was only the tip of the iceberg reveals that only taking down Cardinal Law would have been to make a scapegoat of the Cardinal to protect themselves from their share of the blame.

Bringing Down the System

The editor had launched the Spotlight team on their investigation by saying that he wants more than to bring down one bad actor. He wants to bring down the entire system that enabled something so horrific to go on for so long. That system, it turns out, runs deeper than one institution. It’s the values system we all share, one that devalues all the things that are the qualities of childhood: innocence, trust, humility, weakness, unabashed love and a willingness to forgive.

Montessori, writing about the relationship between children and the Catholic faith, pointed out that the qualities of childhood reveal the living presence of God in our midst. God is not a power broker protecting his political position by sacrificing the weakest members of his family. God is like a child, loving and merciful, and when we silence children, Montessori warned us, we are silencing the voice of God. She writes:

In the society of adults, a tyrant used to be recognized as the elect of God. But to the child a grown-up person represents God himself. It is beyond discussion; in fact the only person who could discuss it is the child, and he remains silent. He accommodates himself to everything, believes everything, pardons everything. When he is punished he does not try to justify himself, and willingly asks the pardon of any angry person, forgetting to inquire how he has given offense. (The Child in the Church, Maria Montessori)

This is a moving and accurate picture of the child in our midst who offers us unconditional love despite our neglect, disrespect, and even our abuse. If we are horrified by what children suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church, we must not let our outrage convince us of our innocence. We must refuse the urge to scapegoat and instead take responsibility for our own failures to protect the most vulnerable among us. For if we wish to see the face of God, we need only gaze upon a child.

Photo: Spotlight (Screenshot from YouTube.)

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Valentine’s Day Tip for Parents: Become Your Toddler’s Secret Admirer

This video is my way of saying Happy Valentine’s Day to the parents and grandparents of young children. You know, at the Raven Foundation we often talk about how we can lose touch with our best selves when we get caught up in rivalry. And parents know that the worst form rivalry can take is the dreaded power struggle with our children. How is it that we can become so adversarial with the very ones we love with all our hearts?

Maria Montessori had an explanation for this dynamic and a way to get the love back. She observed, “Yes, of course, we all love children, we love them a great deal, but… we do not understand them. We do not do what we should for them, because we have no idea what it is we should do.” Too often, she cautioned, when we are caught up in power struggles, we act like a dictator who “wants others to obey his will and refuses to take their personalities into account. The principal [parenting] problem as the adult sees it is: How can the child be made to obey? Should he be dealt with tenderly or severely?”

When our chief parenting concern is obedience or good behavior, we have quite unintentionally become our child’s rival! We have accidentally stumbled into a battle of wills with each side going to extremes to come out on top. We see inconsolable temper tantrums on the one side and the desperate use of more and more extreme punishments on the other. Caught in this spiral, we wonder: Where did the love go? In this video, I explain Montessori’s solution: Learn that your toddler has a secret he cannot help but keep from you. Learning to understand and admire that secret is the key to avoiding power struggles because we begin to see our children’s behavior in a new light. Rather than acts of disobedience, we realize that they are following an inner drive that is too powerful to resist. When you become your child’s secret admirer, you will feel the love flow again – I promise! Happy Valentine’s Day!

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A Montessori Christmas

Editor’s Note: This video is a part of the Maria Montessori Project, which aims to dramatize the life of Dr. Maria Montessori and draw connections between her work in child development and the mimetic theory of Dr. René Girard. As Christmas draws near, many parents are anticipating the day with a dose of anxiety mixed with joy. The pressure to recreate special Christmas magic for our own children is great. Montessori educator and mimetic theorist Suzanne Ross and her daughter Emily want Christmas to be a joyful time for little ones and parents alike.  Enjoy this helpful, practical and spirit-filled conversation about how to simplify Christmas, reduce stress and pressure, and make the holiday a calm, peaceful, wonderful time for the whole family.

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Tears For Girard

René Girard, the great scholar of scapegoating, passed away on November 4, 2015. He was born in Avignon, France, in 1923, but my thoughts keep drifting to Rome, 1907, sixteen years before Girard was born. Because that was the year that Dr. Maria Montessori made a remarkable discovery that seems, in hindsight, to anticipate Girard’s work by fifty years. What Girard discovered was the scapegoating mechanism; what the good doctor discovered was a scapegoat who quite literally could not speak for itself.

Montessori and Girard each sparked a worldwide “awakening of conscience” (her words) with broad implications for human flourishing. Yet each exhibited a modesty that belied their remarkable insights. Montessori, like Girard, called her discovery “a simple observation and accessible to all”. If you doubt their conclusions, each urged that we need only “go and observe” for ourselves.

Though Montessori preceded Girard, her work could easily be described as a practical application of his. She became keenly aware that children were not only misunderstood by adults; they were victims of adult oppression. No matter that adults defended their parenting and educational methods as demonstrations of love; the Dottoressa could see the suffering such love, blind to the particular needs of childhood, caused. Listen to her describe her aims with ears tuned by Girard:

This is the cause. Not great institutions, not someone endeavoring to spread an idea, only a faint child’s voice, echoing plaintively in every corner of the earth. (The 1913 Rome Lectures, 3)

Like Girard, her work caused adults to undergo profound personal transformations. With a growing sense of guilt, parents and teachers learned that they had been insensitive to the most fragile, dependent and trusting of God’s creatures. She begged that we look with new eyes at common childhood behavior: Why do children move slowly, delight in repetition, prize process over product, privilege meandering over efficiency, and delight in the mundane? This is not evidence of disobedience, disrespect or petulance as adults so often assume. This is evidence of children behaving normally. When we blame or punish them for failing to behave like miniature adults, we have become their oppressors without knowing it.

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Maria Montessori

What Montessori saw so clearly is that children were highly susceptible to being scapegoated because they are weak and defenseless, without adequate language to express themselves. Fits of anger, tantrums, crying and outright disobedience were explained by Montessori as a nonverbal communication of pain and suffering. What happens when you begin to see childhood tantrums as a victim’s cry for help? Montessori describes the impact during her first teacher training class in 1909:

In this course, for the first time, I expounded the facts related to what is called my method. It happened that during these lectures that many of those present wept so that it seemed a sad course. So I said, “What is so melancholic in what I am telling you?” They answered, “We feel the birth of our conscience within us.” Many wept for the faults of which they were until then unaware.

What Montessori awakened in these first student-teachers was the realization that they had been scapegoating children without knowing it. What caused them to weep was that until their encounter with the Dottoressa, they honestly believed that they loved children. Their aim had been to do what was best, and yet they had done terrible harm. Many who study Girard’s work, myself included, find ourselves implicated in his description of the scapegoater. To have a scapegoat, he warned us, is to not to know you have one. What he awakened in so many people around the world is the terrible realization that we were not so good, peaceful or harmless as we believed. We have wept like those students of Montessori, as our souls were stretched and our conscience born.

As we mourn Girard’s passing, we find ourselves grateful as never before for those tears. He enabled us to see ourselves as obstacles to peace, an awareness both devastating and oddly hopeful. For it puts the key to peace within reach and in our power. Our scapegoats await our tears, often with tears of their own. Let us not make them wait too long.

Images: Screenshot from Youtube. Insights With Rene Girard by HooverInstitution.

Maria Montessori by The New Student’s Reference Work via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

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Parenting On The Brink: Wrestling With Fears Too Big to Name

Editor’s Note: This article, by guest author and peace activist Frida Berrigan, was first published on Tomdispatch.com.

Madeline is in the swing, her face the picture of delight. “Mo, mo,” she cries and kicks her legs to show me that she wants me to push her higher and faster. I push, and push, and push with both hands. There is no thought in my head except for her joy. I’m completely present in this moment. It’s perfection. Madeline embodies the eternal now and she carries me with her, pulling me out of my worries and fears and plans.

But not forever: after a few minutes, my mind and eyes wander. I take in the whole busy playground, crowded with toddlers plunging headlong into adventure and their attendant adults shouting exhortations to be careful, offering snacks, or lost in the tiny offices they carry in their hands. It’s a gorgeous day. Sunny and blue and not too hot, a hint of fall in the breeze. And then my eye is caught by a much younger mom across the playground trying to convince her toddler that it’s time to go.

When Madeline graduates from high school, I will be 57. Jeez, I think, that mom will still be younger than I am now when her kid walks across that stage. If I live to be 85, Madeline will be 46 and maybe by then I’ll have some grandkids.  In fact, I’m suddenly convinced of it.  Between Madeline and her three-year-old brother Seamus and their eight-year-old sister Rosena, I will definitely live to see grandkids.  I reassure myself for the millionth time that having kids in my late thirties was totally fine.

And then another thought comes to mind, the sort of thought that haunts the parents of this moment: When I’m 85, it will be 2059, and what will that look like? When my grandkids are my age now, it could be almost a new century. And what will our planet look like then? And I feel that little chill that must be increasingly commonplace among other parents of 2015.

And then I’m gone. You wouldn’t know it to look at me.  After all, I’m still pushing the swing, still cooing and chatting with my buoyant 18-month-old daughter, but my mind is racing, my heart is pounding. This playground will not be here. This tranquil, stable, forever place wasn’t built to last 100 years, not on a planet like this one at this moment anyway.

I look around and I know. None of this — the municipal complex, the school across the street, the supermarket up the road — is built for 100 years, especially not this hundred years. It won’t last. And I can’t imagine a better future version of this either. What comes to mind instead are apocalyptic images, cheesy ones cribbed from The Walking Dead, that zombie series on AMC; The Day After, a 1980s made-for-TV dramatization of a nuclear attack on the United States; Cormac McCarthy’s haunting novel The Road; Brad Pitt’s grim but ultimately hopeful World War Z; and The Water Knife, a novel set in the western United States in an almost waterless near future.

They all rush into my head and bump up against the grainy black-and-white documentary footage of Hiroshima in 1945 that I saw way too young and will never forget. This place, this playground, empty, rusted, submerged in water, burned beyond recognition, covered in vines, overrun by trees. Empty. Gone.

Then, of course, Madeline brings me back to our glorious present. She wants to get out of the swing and hit the slides. She’s fearless, emphatic, and purposeful. She deserves a future.  Her small body goes up those steps and down the slide over and over and over again. And the rush of that slide is new every time. She shouts and laughs at the bottom and races to do it again. Now. Again. Now. This is reality. But my fears are real, too. The future is terrifying. To have a child is to plant a flag in the future and that is no small responsibility.

We Have Nothing to Fear but…

We mothers hear a lot these days about how to protect our children. We hear dos and don’ts from mommy magazines, from our own mothers, our pediatricians, each other, from lactation experts and the baby formula industry, from the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, from Doctor Bob Sears, from sociologists and psychiatrists and child development specialists. We are afraid for our kids who need to be protected from a world of dangers, including strangers, bumblebees, and electrical outlets.

Such threats are discussed, dissected, and deconstructed constantly in the media and ever-newer ones are raised, fears you never even thought about until the nightly news or some other media outlet brought them up. But hanging over all these humdrum, everyday worries is a far bigger fear that we never talk about and that you won’t read about in that mommy magazine or see in any advice column.  And yet, it’s right there, staring us in the face every single day, constant, existential, too big to name.

We can’t say it, but we are increasingly afraid of the future, of tomorrow, afraid for our children in ways that, in themselves, are frightening to bring up. It’s as diffuse as “anything can happen” and as specific as we are running out of ______ [fill in the blank: clean water, fossil fuels, space for people, arable land, cheap food stuffs, you name it]. Even if the supply of whatever you chose to think about isn’t yet dwindling in our world, you know that it will one of these days. Whatever it is, that necessity of everyday life will be gone (or too expensive for ordinary people) by ______ [2020, 2057, 2106].

It’s paralyzing to look at Madeline and think such thoughts, to imagine an ever-hotter planet, ever-less comfortable as a home not just for that vague construct “humanity,” but for my three very specific children, not to speak of those grandchildren of my dreams and fantasies.

It’s something that’s so natural to push away. Who wouldn’t prefer not to think about it?  And at least here, in our world, on some level we can still do that.

For those of us who are white and western and relatively financially stable, it’s still possible to believe we’re insulated from disaster — or almost possible anyway. We can hold on to the comfort that our children are unlikely to be gunned down or beaten to death by police, for example. We can watch the news and feel sadness for the mass exodus out of Syria and all those who are dying along the way, but those feelings are tinged with relief in knowing that we will not be refugees ourselves.

But for how long? What if?

They say: enjoy your kids while they’re young; pretty soon they’ll be teenagers. Haha, right? Actually, I’m excited about each stage of my kids’ lives, but Madeline won’t be a teenager until 2027. According to climate scientists and environmentalists, that may already be “past the point of no return.” If warming continues without a major shift, there will be no refreezing those melting ice shelves, no holding back the rising seas, no scrubbing smog-clogged air, no button we can press to bring water back to parched landscapes.

These are things I know. This is a future I, unfortunately, can imagine. These are the reasons I try to do all the right things: walk, eat mostly vegetarian, grow some of our own food, conserve, reuse, reduce, recycle. We had solar panels installed on our roof. We only have one car. We’re trying, but I know just as well that such lifestyle choices can’t turn this around.

It will take everyone doing such things — and far more than that. It will require governments to come to their senses and oil companies to restrain the urge to get every last drop of fossil fuel out of the ground.  It will take what Naomi Klein calls a “Marshall Plan for the Earth.” In her groundbreaking and hopeful book, This Changes Everything, she writes:

I am convinced that climate change represents a historic opportunity on an even greater scale [than the New Deal]. As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the levels many scientists recommend, we once again have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up.

Which brings me to fear and how it paralyzes. I don’t want to be paralyzed in the face of catastrophic climate change or any other looming calamity. I want to be motivated and spurred to action not by an apocalyptic vision of our local playground engulfed in flames or submerged under several feet of water, but by the potential for the brighter future than is surely within our grasp — within my grasp today and Madeline’s in some future that she truly deserves.

Preparing for the Unthinkable 

Growing up, I heard this a lot: “Don’t be so First World, Frida.”

That’s what Phil Berrigan — former priest, brazenly nonviolent activist, tireless organizer for peace and justice — would tell me, his eldest daughter. If I was flippant or tweenish, that’s what he would always say, “Don’t be so First World.” It was his rejoinder when I asked for spending money or permission to go to the movies. What he meant was: regulate your wants, consider others, be comfortable being alone, put yourself second, listen, be in solidarity, choose the harder path.

My father’s admonishment sounds a discordant note amid today’s morass of parenting messages with their emphasis on success and ease and happiness. But it prepared me for much of what I encountered along the road to adulthood and it resonates deeply as I parent three children whose futures I cannot imagine. Not really. Will they have clean water, a home, a democracy, a playground for their children? Will they be able to buy food — or even grow it? Will they be able to afford transportation? I don’t know.

What I can do is prepare them to distinguish needs from wants, to share generously and build community, to stand up for what they believe and not stand by while others are abused. When, as with Madeline at that playground, the unspoken overwhelms me, I wonder whether I shouldn’t sooner or later start teaching them how the world works and basic skills that will serve them well in an uncertain future: what electricity is and how to start a fire, how to navigate by the stars, how to feed themselves by hunting and gathering, how to build a shelter or find and purify water, or construct a bicycle out of parts they come across on the road to perdition.

The only problem is that, like most of my peers and friends, I actually don’t know how to do any of that (except maybe for the bicycle building), so I better get started. I should also be planting nut trees in our backyard and working for global nuclear disarmament. I can help New London (a water’s edge community) be prepared and more resilient in the face of rising sea levels and be active in our local Green Party.

I know that there’s no simple solution, no easy or individual fix to what’s coming down the road. I know as well that there is no future except the one we are making right now, this second, again and again and again. And in our world, I call that hope, not despair. Perhaps you could just as easily call it folly.  Call it what you will.  I don’t have a label for my parenting style. I’m not a helicopter mom or a tiger mom. But like a lot of other people right now, whether they know it or not, realize it or not, I am parenting on the brink of catastrophe. I’m terrified for my children, but I am not paralyzed and I know I am not alone, which makes me, despite everything, hopeful, not for myself, but for Madeline.

 

Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, and lives in New London, Connecticut.

Copyright 2015 Frida Berrigan

Image:  Via Pixabay

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The Age Of Peace Will Be The Age Of The Child

If the era in the history of human evolution that is characterized by the constant outbreak of war can be called the ‘adult period’, then the period in which we will begin to build peace will be the ‘age of the child’. – Dr. Maria Montessori, Education and Peace, 1937

The Great War that engulfed Europe from 1914-1918 was a bitter disappointment for the peace movement. As the 19th century came to a close, the promise of progress that accompanied Darwin’s discovery of the evolution of life on earth seemed to put peace within our grasp. Progress was the popular byword and always meant a movement toward something better. It was the age of invention and industrialization. Human beings were overflowing with strategies to improve the lives of the poor, the uneducated, the working class and the least and the last among us. The women’s rights movement was flourishing as well, and Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree (1896) was an outspoken and popular representative of the cause.

But 1914 dashed all that hope. Many are the disappointments in the world today, as well, if your goal is peace. We are witnessing the greatest number of people displaced by violence and war since the second Great War in Europe. Even so, much progress has also been made by movements advocating for the rights of groups excluded from privilege and power. Women, labor, the disabled, LGBTQ, the poor and the sick have all witnessed their rights expand. And yet war continues. We are living in the best of times and the worst of times, it seems, a paradox that causes many of us to careen between hope and despair, unsure of how to move beyond the motion sickness.

But the answer is right in front of us, as close as the tiny hand reaching up to hold ours. Dr. Montessori discovered that “If we were to change the center of civilization from the adult to the child, a more noble form of civilization would arise.” Her perspective seems naïve, does it not? And yet she explains that if we did reimagine our “national interest” as child-centered or aligned our policies with what was best for children,

Then civilization would not develop exclusively from the point of view of what is convenient and useful for adult life. Today progress is sought for, too much and too exclusively, through adult qualities. Thus civilization is based on the triumph of force, on violent conquest, on adaptation, on the struggle for existence and the survival of conquerors… in the construction of society something – some essential element – has been missing… The child has almost disappeared from the thoughts of the adult world, and the adults live too much as though there were no children who have the right to influence them. (Montessori, The Child in the Church. First published in 1936.)

It’s strange to our way of thinking, that children should influence us and not the other way around. But it’s what Jesus advocated. He taught us that the kingdom of God belongs to the little ones and that if we want to enter, we need to become like them. Becoming like them begins with privileging the rights of children over our own, whether we are women or men or laborers or sick or poor, powerful or powerless.

Before we make any domestic policy decision on health care, defense budgets, economics, education, criminal justice, policing, gun policy – whatever the issue we must ask how it will effect the children, and let the answer become the policy. And in international relations if we considered the impact on children before we negotiate agreements on weapons, trade or immigration, before we launch an invasion, orchestrate a coup, drop a bomb or authorize murder by drone, how different our actions would be. We would be less violent and more peaceful actors in the world. Not only would the world be safer for children, it would be safer for us all. The age of peace will be the age of the child.

My two-year-old granddaughter likes to ask her mom, “Where are we going next?” Perhaps that’s a bigger question than she knows, one that deserves our best answer.

 

Image: Copyright Paylessimages via 123rf.com.

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And If I Die Before I Wake: On Death And Praying With Children

When I was a boy, every night my Dad would tuck me into bed and lead me in prayer. We would close our eyes and fold our hand as my Dad would pray for individual members of my family, my friends and teachers, and for world peace.

At age 36, I can tell you that this bed time prayer ritual is one of the most important gifts that anyone has ever given to me. While my Dad no longer tucks me into bed and leads me in prayer (I am 36, after all!), the ritual has stuck with me. In fact, my night time prayer routine helped me get through middle school, high school, college, and graduate school. It was there when my Mom died of cancer when I was 20. I took it with me when my wife and I joined the Peace Corps. I brought it back with me 10 days later when we became Peace Corps drop outs. It was there for me on those two nights that my sons were born. And it was there on the night that we adopted our daughter.

That prayer has always given me a sense of peace and calm during good times and bad. The repetition of my Dad’s night time ritual provided me with a deep sense that I was loved. Not just by my Dad, but also by God.

As a father of three children, my Dad is my model for how to be a good father. So, I’ve decided to pass the night time prayer ritual along to the next generation. I pray with my children in the same way that my Dad prayed with me. We start with the same opening:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I’ve since discovered that the prayer continues, “If I should live for other days, I pray the Lord to guide my ways.” My Dad never prayed that happier ending. Maybe he didn’t know it. Or maybe he wanted to torment his son with the thought of death!

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the reason. But I also know that it prepared me for the death of my mother.

Our culture doesn’t prepare us for death very well. We like to keep it at arms-length. But the truth is that death is unavoidable – grandparents, parents, children, and even pets. As much as we’d like to avoid it, we know about death from an early age. Paradoxically, the more we try to suppress the truth about death, the more power we give it over our lives. The gift that my Dad gave me in the opening of our prayer was the knowledge that death is natural. We don’t have to fear it. Instead, we can know that in life and in death, God is there with us.

The other night I was praying with my eight year old son. He’s a very curious boy. So, when I finished, he sat up, opened his eyes, and said, “Dad, there was something really weird about that prayer. I mean, what’s the deal with that part that says, ‘If I should die before I wake?’”

I remember asking the same question to my Dad when I was about eight years old. I can’t remember how he responded. But the years of praying those words prepared me for this answer: “You’re not going to die tonight. But at some point, everyone dies. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid of it. Because I love you. And so does God.”

“Okay Dad,” my son replied. Then he laid back down and fell asleep.

Image: Photo: Flickr: Nancy Big Crow, Praying Child, Creative Commons License, some changes made

sakina breaks a toy gun

Burying Guns; Planting Peace In Afghanistan

Editor’s Note: This article, written by Dr. Hakim, was submitted by contributing author Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

10 year old Sakina, an Afghan street kid, had this to say, “I don’t like to be in a world of war. I like to be in a world of peace.”

On 27th August 2015, Sakina and Inam, with fellow Afghan street kids and the Afghan Peace Volunteers, held a mock funeral for weapons and celebrated the establishment of a green space in Kabul.

Dressed in long black coats, they broke and buried toy guns in a small spot where, over the past two years, they have been planting trees.

Inam, a bright-eyed ten year old, caught the group’s energetic desire to build a world without war. “I kept toy guns till about three years ago,” he acknowledged with a smile.

On the same day, Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, ex-President of Costa Rica, was in Mexico for the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Conference of States Parties.

In his statement at the Conference, he told the story of an indigenous Guatemalan woman who thanked him for negotiating a peace accord 28 years ago. The mother had said, “Thank you, Mr. President, for my child who is in the mountains fighting, and for the child I carry in my womb.”

No mother, Guatemalan or Afghan, wants her children to be killed in war.

Oscar Arias Sanchez wrote: “I never met them, but those children of conflict are never far from my thoughts. They were its (the peace treaty’s) true authors, its reason for being.”

I’m confident that the children of Afghanistan were also in his thoughts, especially since he had a brief personal connection with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in 2014, having been part of a Peace Jam video message of solidarity to the Volunteers, wearing their Borderfree Blue Scarves which symbolize that ‘all human beings live under the same blue sky’.

I thank Mr Oscar Arias Sanchez for his important work on the Arms Trade Treaty, though I sense that an arms trade treaty isn’t going to be enough.

Afghan children are dying from the use of weapons.

To survive, they need a ban against weapons. Regulations about buying and selling weapons perpetuate a trade that is killing them.

I saw Inam and other child laborers who work in Kabul’s streets decisively swing hammers down on the plastic toy guns, breaking off triggers, scattering nozzles into useless pieces and symbolically breaking our adult addiction to weapons.

Children shouldn’t have to pay the price for our usual business, especially business from the U.S., the largest arms seller in the world. U.S. children suffer too, with more U.S. people having died as a result of gun violence since 1968 than have died in all U.S. wars combined. U.S. weapon sellers are killing their own people; by exporting their state-of-the-art weapons, they facilitate the killing of many others around the world.

After burying the toy guns, surrounded by the evergreen and poplar trees which they had planted, the youth shed their black coats and donned sky-blue scarves.

Another world was appearing as Sakina and Inam watched young friends plant one more evergreen sapling.

Inam watches an evergreen tree being planted.

Inam watches an evergreen tree being planted.

Inam knew that it hasn’t been easy to create this green space in heavily fortified Kabul.

The City Municipality said they couldn’t water the trees (though it is just 200 metres away from their office). The Greenery Department weren’t helpful. Finally, the security guards of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission just across from the garden, offered to help, after the Volunteers had provided them with a 100-metre water hose.

Rohullah, who coordinates the environment team at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre, expressed his frustration. “Once, we had to hire a private water delivery service to water the tree saplings so they wouldn’t shrivel up. None of the government departments could assist.”

Sighing, he added ironically, “We can’t use the Kabul River tributary running just next to the Garden, as the trash-laden trickle of black, bracken water is smelly and filthy.”

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, according to figures from the National Priorities Project, a non-profit, non-partisan U.S. federal budget research group, the ongoing Afghan War is costing American taxpayers US $4 million an hour.

It is the youth and children who are making sense today, like when Nobel Laureate Malalai Yousafzai said recently that if the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just 8 days, we could provide 12 years of free, quality education for every child on the planet.

“I don’t like to work in the streets, but my family needs bread. Usually, I feel sad,” Inam said, looking away, “because I feel a sort of helplessness.”

Oscar Arias Sanchez said at the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Conference, “And we must speak, today – in favour of this crucial treaty, and its swift and effective implementation. If we do, then when today’s children of conflict look to us for guidance and leadership, we will no longer look away in shame. We will be able to tell them, at long last, that we are standing watch for them. We are on guard. Someone is finally ready to take action.”

Sakina tells the world

Sakina tells the world.

That morning, I heard the voices of Sakina, Inam and the Afghan youth ring through the street, “#Enough of war!”

It wasn’t a protest. It was the hands-on building of a green spot without weapons, and an encouraging call for others to do so everywhere.

Through their dramatic colours and clear action, they were inviting all of us, “Bury your weapons. Build your gardens.”

“We will stand watch for you!”

 

Hakim, ( Dr. Teck Young, Wee ) is a medical doctor from Singapore who has done humanitarian and social enterprise work in Afghanistan for the past 10 years, including being a mentor to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, an inter-ethnic group of young Afghans dedicated to building non-violent alternatives to war. He is the 2012 recipient of the International Pfeffer Peace Prize.

Top Image:  “Sakina breaks a toy gun.” All images submitted with original article.

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The Imitation Game: US-Iran Relations

We now have an agreement with Iran to restrain their pursuit of nuclear weapons, but just how good a deal is it? President Obama, congress, presidential contenders, and political commentators are debating that right now. Sojourners offers clear-eyed support for the deal as “better than the alternatives” and clearly better than military strikes which “would be, at best, premature, as well as highly unpredictable and morally irresponsible in creating yet another U.S. war with a Muslim country.”

Even so, Sojourner’s President Jim Wallis has written that he has no doubt that Iran is “an enemy of America, an enemy of Israel, and an enemy of peace.” But as a Christian, he also believes that “you need to find ways to make peace with your enemies.” This deal, for Jim Wallis anyway, seems to be a way to do that. But how do you make peace with a nation that is not just our enemy, but an enemy of peace itself?

Just what is an enemy? We don’t often ask that question because we think the answer is obvious: enemies are bad guys who hate us for no good reason. An enemy is so unlike us that we compare ourselves to them in terms of opposites: rational/ irrational, nonviolent/ violent, law abiding/ criminal, and just/ unjust. We believe that we and our enemy have absolutely nothing in common except perhaps a shared desire to defeat the other.

The Terrible Twos: A Parable

But I think that way of thinking about enemies is just plain wrong. The cause of the mistake is a basic misunderstanding of human psychology, specifically the psychology of desire. Our enemies are not our opposites; they are the mirror image of our desires. In this way, “an enemy” is not someone separate and distinct from us, rather they are a product of our relationship with them. The best way I know of illustrating this is with a story about desire in my 2-year-old granddaughter, Grace.

Grace is at that “terrible” age when her desires often seem at odds with the adults around her. But mostly she’s not as terrible as just annoying. Like when she won’t eat her own food but devours what’s on her mom’s plate or when she wants to “help” fold the clothes. Like all terrible twos, Grace is an imitator on steroids. Whatever we do, that’s what she wants to do, too. Which is how she learns to do things, of course. Grace is learning how to be a grown-up by imitating grown-ups. Which is natural and good, not terrible at all.

The terrible kicks in when Grace seems to be determined to do the opposite of what we want. For example, when we try to do something we think she needs help with, like pour her milk, she screams, which is her wordless version of, “You’re not the boss of me!” If we insist on pouring the milk for her, it leads to the dreaded power struggle. Hey, what parent hasn’t gotten into a tug of war over pouring milk or bedtime or what to wear to school, and lost?! Our kids seem determined to defy us just for the sport of it and it’s hard not to feel that our sweet two-year-old has turned into a demon child.

But here’s the catch: Grace’s defiance is also an act of imitation except that she’s imitating something we want to keep sole possession of: the power to decide things for ourselves. Get it? When mom displays her own ability to make decisions and impose her will on Grace, Grace will have none of it. She wants to be just like mommy in everything, including being the boss of herself! In fact, the more we refuse to share the privilege of being her boss, the more desirable it becomes to her. We would never call Grace our enemy, but boy oh boy, it sure does feel like it sometimes!

The Psychology of Desire

This is just basic desire psychology. The thing we won’t share is the thing we most value and that will provoke desire in others. So what does this have to do with Iran, the so-called enemy of the U.S.? Iran may be our enemy, but her desire for nuclear weapons is, in fact, a perfect imitation of our own. I am not discounting the dangers to U.S. security if nuclear weapons get into the wrong hands. No hands could be more wrong than those of an enemy, especially one that is also an “enemy of peace”. But the U.S. may risk becoming an enemy of peace as well when it blames others for desires they learned from us.

Let me be clear: Iran is no more a child than we are. We are equals, mirror images of each other’s desires for nuclear weapons and global respect. I’m no expert in diplomacy or nuclear policy, but I do know that conflict begins with shared desires. Ironically, so does friendship. The difference between enemies and friends is that friends enjoying sharing desires and enemies deny it’s happening. Remember, if Iran refuses to relinquish their desire for nuclear weapons, it’s not defiance; it’s imitation. And yet it may be easier than we think to follow Jim Wallis’ advice to find a way to make peace with this particular enemy. The path is obvious and available to us: we can renounce our desire for a nuclear arsenal. That’s a desire worth sharing and enjoying with friends.

 

Image: Copyright: David Carillet via 123rf.com